At least 17 people drowned off the coast of Myanmar after a boat carrying Rohingya Muslim migrants trying to flee the discriminatory country sank.

Every year, thousands of Rohingya risk their lives making dangerous sea journeys from camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar in an attempt to reach Malaysia and Indonesia, countries with predominantly Muslim populations.

At least 50 people were on the boat heading to Malaysia when it capsized due to rough seas overnight Sunday into Monday, according to Bayar La, a lifeguard at the Shwe Yaung Metta Foundation in Sittwe, Rakhine State (western Myanmar).

“We recovered 17 bodies” said the rescuer and added that another 30 people are missing.

“We found eight people alive. The police took them in for questioning.”

Rescuers are still searching for the missing people, he added, although the exact number of people on board is not known.

Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority Rakhine State is home to around 600,000 Rohingya Muslims.

More than 3,500 Rohingya on 39 boats attempted to cross the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal in 2022, up from 700 the previous year, according to UN refugee agency data dating to January.

At least 348 Rohingya died or went missing at sea last year, UNHCR said, calling for a regional response to prevent further tragedies.

According to UNHCR, appeals to the region’s port authorities to “rescue and disembark people in distress have gone unheeded, with many vessels drifting at sea for weeks”.

Amnesty International compares the living conditions of the Rohingya in Rakhine state to “apartheid”.

In 2017, a crackdown by Myanmar’s military forced an estimated 750,000 Rohingya to flee the country to Bangladesh, following widespread reports of killings, arson and rape.

Myanmar will have to answer charges of genocide before the United Nations’ highest judicial authorities after this mass exodus.

Bangladesh and Myanmar are preparing to launch a pilot program to repatriate 1,176 refugees, despite outcry from refugees and rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), which warned of “serious risks” ” for them.

In July, the top US human rights representative in Bangladesh said conditions were not yet safe for Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar.

Cuts in its budget have forced the UN food program to reduce the rations it distributes to Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh twice this year.

A cyclone swept through Rakhine state in May and the military junta blocked international aid.

Myanmar was plunged into chaos after the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown in a military coup in February 2021, ending a brief period of democracy.